Smithsonian's Museums - the WOW Factor

smithsonian-graphic Day 11 – Moored, Washington, DC

Each day that we've gone out exploring, we've been visiting one of the Smithsonian's museums. According to the Smithsonian Survival Guide (free/$1 donation), the Smithsonian Institution includes 19 museums, the National Zoo, 9 research centers and 12 public gardens. Seven of the museums plus the National Gallery of Art and several public gardens surround the National Mall. We decided which ones held mutual interest and visited those first. As with most national sights in Washington, DC, entrance to all the museums is free.

smithsonian castle washington dc

The Smithsonian Castle seemed the logical place to start, but we didn't start there. (Logic...schmogic!) That said, it's where my blog post starts. The building was completed in 1855, and the museum's entire collection was originally housed here. The Castle is now the Visitor's Center and the Smithsonian icon. An interesting note … James Smithson (1765-1829) was a very wealthy English scientist. He bequeathed his entire fortune to his nephew with the provision that if his nephew died without heirs, his fortune would go to the United States “for the creation of an institution dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge” in Washington, DC. More interesting? Smithson never set foot in the USA. He is buried in a crypt in the Castle...the only person to be interred on the National Mall.

smithson's crypt at the smithsonian in washington dc

Now … on to the museums …

The Air & Space Museum was highest on both David and Paul's list, so we visited there first. This museum details the history of flight. The museum boasts more than 50,000 artifacts, plus a planetarium and an IMAX theater.  We tagged along on a guided tour of the highlights of the museum which took us from Icarus to space travel and everything in between. Talk about mind-boggling! The highlights were Wilbur & Orville Wright's 1903 Flyer, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, lunar space landing vehicles, rockets, jets … if it flew or flies, it's probably here. smithsonian air and space museum washington dc

Lucky for us, the Wright Brothers were home and consented to having their picture taken with us. Timing's everything.

pic with the wright brothers at the smithsonian

I had voted for the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden and since it was just across the street from Air & Space, we headed there next. The Hirshhorn is a circular, drum-shaped building with an outdoor plaza and a sunken sculpture garden. It concentrates on international modern and contemporary art and reminded us very much of Tasmania's MONA.

hirshhorn building

hirshhorn art at the smithsonian

We convinced David to pose next to Big Man (artist: Ron Mueck) to give some perspective to the sculpture's size.

big man at hirschhorn museum

Moving right along, we visited the Natural History museum on two consecutive days and still didn't see it all. The museum houses the largest natural history collection in the world and we were once again overwhelmed by all we saw. Henry, the elephant, greeted us in the main hall on arrival. His ivory tusks were too heavy to mount (80# each), so he's had to manage with fiberglass tusks all these years.

henry at the natural history museum

Like every other museum at the Smithsonian, the exhibits were informative, provocative and fascinating. We saw a T-Rex skull and a triceratops skeleton, cave paintings, a giant squid, mummies, hordes of animals and marine life and a whole gallery dedicated to our prehistoric ancestors.  And, the Hope Diamond was on display … all 45.52 carats of it.

natural history museum washington dc

The American History Museum contains three floors of all that's American. We were particularly enthralled with a gallery entitled American Stories. Dorothy's ruby slippers were on display, as were first ladies' gowns, Mohammed Ali's gloves, Bert & Ernie, Edison's light bulb, Lincoln's top hat, the golden spike for the completion of the Transcontinental railroad, the Star-Spangled Banner and Ben Franklin's walking stick, among other memorabilia.

memorabilia from smithsonian

With so many galleries and exhibits to choose from, we had to choose carefully which to visit. We had finally come to the conclusion, we couldn't see everything … not enough time and not enough brain cells to digest it all. We chose two more galleries, On the Water (of course) and America on the Move, a history of transportation in the USA.  David was particularly interested in the Gunboat Philadelphia, a Revolutionary War era gunboat, that was sunk early in the war and only recently discovered, recovered and brought to the Smithsonian. All three were excellent choices and we learned a lot, but our minds were full to the brim when we left.

gunboat philiadelphia smithsonian

The African American History and Culture Museum opened with great celebration while we were in DC. The lines were long and we opted to wait until our next visit to check out this museum. Good thing, because we couldn't take in many more museums.

african american history and culture museum washington dc

We were so impressed with all we saw, we became members of the Smithsonian. What better way to show our gratitude for such a stupendous institution.

There's still more DC to share. David's Blue View will take precedence tomorrow, then on Sunday we'll report about our visit to the Money Factory and the National Gallery of Art. Check it out.